Words: Nick Russell
Photos: Andrew Miller, Christian Pondella
Every so often an offer comes around that cannot be refused. An opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, perhaps borderline ridiculous. This was a chance to step outside the confines of a typical snowboard session, one that requires more than simply driving to the trailhead.
The proposition came in the form of an email from good friend and badass skier Max Hammer, at the start of the season. It was an invitation to take a springtime trip through the Eastern Sierra—in itself, not out of the ordinary. Come April, many make the pilgrimage down to the East Side with aspirations of descending roadside classics that rival some of the longest runs in the world. What separated this mission from others was in his signoff. "The catch," he wrote, "it would all be on bikes. Slow roll."
Without much thought, I agreed to the two-wheeled excursion. Also along for the ride would be Max's buddy Joel Oberly, photographers Andrew Miller and Christian Pondella, as well as Warp Wave founders Gray Thompson and Eric Messier to document the trip. Keep in mind that no one in the crew had ever biked much further than to the store and back, let alone embarked on a long-distance cycling tour. I don't even own a bicycle. A local bike mechanic connected us with Eric Pollard, a rep for Salsa Cycles and our soon to be grease guru. He graciously lined us up with the proper steeds we'd need and liked the idea so much that he decided to drop everything and join our crew of inexperienced optimists.
A voyage down highway 395 and into the high country is a rite of passage for any foot-powered enthusiast. Only a few hours by car from Lake Tahoe, one is transported to a rugged mecca of endless peaks that is only limited by tired legs and amount of hours in the day. Bushwhacking, stream crossings and hours of skinning and climbing all come with the territory. We call this type-two fun, those days that are a complete struggle, but looking back only bring memories of laughter and satisfaction.
Days leading up to our departure are filled with apprehension and the realization that I haven't ridden a bike since last summer. Although leg strength is at its peak by this time of year, worries of chafing haunt my privates. Thanks to a recommendation from cross-country veteran Tim Eddy, we were stocked with plenty of gooch cream. Over a two week period, the tentative goal is to leave from Max's house in Reno and pedal southbound well over 300 miles to the tallest peak in the lower 48, Mount Whitney, all whilst climbing and riding lines along the way. Trading gasoline for electrolytes to fuel the journey, we accepted our fate, which would surely consist of plenty of type-two moments.
Eastbound and Down
Saddle bags loaded to the brim and bikes weighing in at over 100 pounds, we set forth from the Biggest Little City in the World just past dawn. Casinos, bums, and busy intersections become a thing of the past as we veer onto quiet country roads. Horses and cattle begin to outnumber the human population as we enter the heart of the Washoe Valley. Perhaps a tease from the road gods, gently rolling through this peaceful lowland gives a false confidence that maybe this won't be so hard after all. How wrong we were. A southerly headwind is gradually increasing in fury and soon has us asking what we've got ourselves into. Flags along the road are flapping, and a road worker recommends that we try again another day. Nevertheless, we continue on into a brutal windstorm. Portions of the road have us riding on a foot-wide shoulder between guard rails and rumble strips while semi trucks whiz by, shaking our balance and nearly turning us to roadkill. We pull into Genoa, Nevada, and find refuge at the oldest bar in the state. Beaten and buzzed, we settle for a roadside bivy in the local gravel pits that doubles as a shooting range littered with shotgun shells. Had we driven here, it would've only taken a few playlists and possibly a pre-roll to reach our first objective in the start of the Kingdom, the Sawtooth ridgeline outside of the small town called Bridgeport. After two full days of grinding gears, we are ready to trade pavement for snow.
Skunked and Stoked
Hopes are high for a hearty corn harvest in the alpine. The second best thing to powder, corn snow is formed when the temperatures drop below freezing at night and thaw out with the sun to create the perfect consistency for carving. It's edgeable, predictable, and in terms of safety, spring months are ideal for getting on larger lines. The tough thing about going for descents like these, is that one never truly knows what it's like until you've reached the point of no return. What may look like a buttery smooth surface from afar, can turn out to be glassy-firm and puckering, which is exactly what happens to Max and I on our first line. Regardless, we top out on the ridge and marvel at the endless potential surrounding us. There is no place we'd rather be.
By the fourth day there are signs that reality is starting to slip and transform everyone into a new headspace. Noises of the road and that of our bikes incessantly fill the eardrum. We're eating twice as much as normal, repeating jokes, isolated sunburns thriving. Camp is made in the foothills off of the downgrade to Mono Lake, a huge milestone for the trip. June and Mammoth are within sight, and it now finally feels like a shred trip. What I've come to appreciate by taking the slow road is all the little nooks and crannies you'd normally zoom past at 60 miles an hour. Smooth sandstone rises in the form of breast-like and phallic structures, providing protection from the wind and even allowing for a small fire to cook yams over. "Mount Titney!" Someone yells in an animalistic roar as embers float gently towards the heavens.
Admired from a distance and mesmerized by from near, the Dana Plateau is one of the more sought after chunks of terrain down the East Side. 4,000 vertical feet above the shores of Mono Lake, this gateway to Yosemite National Park is reminiscent of Jurassic Park transforming into an Ice Age. After a necessary stop at the Mobile Mart for fish tacos, we round the corner to find rejuvenation in the presence of a glorious sight. A record-breaking season in the range has blessed the cirque with a thick white coat running from her shoulders down well past her thighs. We lay sleeping pads under the trees away from the road and organize our gear for a dawn patrol start. Nights like these are filled with a frothing anticipation; boards are split and skins are on, water bottles full and snacks loaded into every pocket. In the middle of the night I'm woken to the sounds of a violent upheaval. Messi has gotten sick, and the noise from his misery echoes throughout the forest. Still, he powers through and leaves camp with the rest of us the next morning as the sun illuminates through the branches. Temperatures rise quickly at this elevation and only intensify as light radiates off the snow. It is a solid push simply to arrive at the base the plateau, and our bodies are feeling the toll of the days prior. A separate group of friends pass us along the approach with fresh legs and a bounce to their step.
A few hours and a questionable free solo-esque scramble later, we stand atop the wind-scoured mesa looking down at the bright blue waters of Mono and a dry desert beyond it. Max opts for the most exposed line of the trip and naturally greases it, while I move past to look for an entry into a more civil hallway down the way. Two white jackrabbits are resting on the rocks near my line. They are unfazed by me; this is their land, and I am simply a passing visitor. Safe passage is found, void of peeling crevasses that guard many of the chutes up here. Entranced by the granite walls towering above on each side, I'm treated to buttery snow down the sustained fall line. Feeling accomplished and exhausted, we pack up and continue on down the line. There is much more ground to cover.
One Mile Shorter, Two Hours Longer
Seeking a recharge, hot springs become the most important thing on an improvised itinerary. That is, aside from a second breakfast and several lunches along the way. Up to this point, we have taken advantage of any side roads when possible in order to avoid mechanical mayhem. For the most part, they have been a good separation from motorized travel and allow us to groove on our own terms. However, a certain shortcut on the map to our next target proves an important lesson for the future: never take the detour on an unknown country road, there is a high probability that it is unpaved. A series of downward hills enthralls the senses for a while until it flattens out, and dotted yellow lines turn to 10 miles of savage washboard with no shade for the foreseeable future. The point of no return has once again been reached, and each hazy hill on the horizon increases the desire for pavement's return. Nevertheless, come sundown the famed Hot Creek is a welcoming reward. We link up with the visiting Jones team and share an evening of stories and beers. In the morning, they drive off to do some board testing while we gradually pack up and pedal toward the peaks above Convict Lake. Riding lines straight down to the water, gear is quickly shed before a jolting polar plunge.
River Crossings and Hot Sauce
Days are a blur. Indecisiveness rules breakfast conversations. There are literally endless options in the range. Longer days now have the sun rising at five. Direct light is on eastern faces by 6:30. Listening to our bodies, we realize that biking to a trailhead and getting on-slope with the risk of a wet avalanche is not going to happen. Rather than fighting the impossible, objectives switch aspects, and we aim for more northerly and west-facing terrain in hopes of catching a refreeze. Nearby McGee Creek is holding an ample snowpack up high, just on the other side of a healthy flowing body of water. Tensions are on high alert as the guys with camera packs balance their way across a slippery fallen log to the other side. A beautiful sunset sparks pink and red clouds to the west, dropping into a perfectly timed ramp. Back at our camp for the night, shelter from the incoming wind is appreciated alongside empty horse stables. We devour a dinner consisting of packaged wild salmon soup accompanied by ample hot sauce. Tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, and there is a storm brewing on the horizon.
We rise with the sun to catch some runs further up the drainage. Cloud coverage is a huge relief after a nonstop high pressure which has been frying any exposed skin for the past ten days. Forrest Shearer and Michelle Parker have joined us for the day's outing and blend well with our increasingly loopy program. It was the lines ridden on Mexico's Independence Day that would end up being some of the most memorable of the trip.
Ignorance is Bliss
In order to reach our goal of getting to Mount Whitney by our predetermined date of completion, we now have four days to bike roughly 100 miles. With ignorance and dumb luck on our side, we decide to go for it, pedaling southbound with a looming squall quickly approaching. Breaking up the trip, a cache of hot healing waters outside of Bishop doses us into a tunnel vision. A historic downhill grade towards Mount Tom aids in stoking the fire, and we take to the switchbacks without a care in the world.
Miraculously, our fleet of chariots has somehow avoided any significant mishaps thus far. It isn't until the first substantial tailwind of the trip that anyone gets a flat tire. In a domino effect, four more flats occur en route to Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. Beating the darkness is futile. I pedal up the grade while a slow leak defines the home stretch. Rather than stopping and fixing the issue, I stubbornly limp into our final camp of the trip by headlamp.
A setting comparative to that of Fred Flintstone’s home in Bedrock, Alabama Hills is an otherworldly collection of metamorphosed volcanic rock in the foothills of Mount Whitney. Providing notable bouldering and single-pitch climbing routes, there are also a slew of small caves which supply perfect sleeping corridors for the tentless.
The Last Hill
There is a contrasting feeling of dread and relief in the air. She towers high up into the skyline wearing a fresh white hat, drawing all eyes with a beckoning call. Driving to the end of the road and climbing the mountain is one thing, but biking up the portal road consists of 12 miles in first gear, slogging up 4,500 feet of elevation gain, simply to get to the start of the trailhead.
Isn't this what we've been looking for all along? A journey into an alternate reality, a new way to experience the places in which we plan our lives around. Fuck it, just one last hill to go.
Following the summer trail, the Owens River Valley floor shrinks with each step forward. A raging river crux is passed through various techniques; the slippery balance beam act, a leap of faith or my new favorite, the Tarzan swing. Like most long tours, group dispersion is inevitable, and we regroup at the last water fill station—the highest thawed lake—and later at the popular high camp for multi-day climbers. To our surprise, we find a virtually empty mountain whilst ascending Whitney's famed Mountaineers Route. Pondella leads the way in a godly speed up the classic couloir and to the notch. Here, the line cuts 90 degrees up a small steep section of mixed climbing on the north face. Although a slip here would prove fatal, the exposed pitch is thoroughly enjoyed by the wannabe alpinist within. The topout by the final member of the crew marks a significant moment for all. For roughly thirty minutes, we are the highest people in the lower 48. After a mandatory Ritter Sport and extended snack break, our large group proceeds down the wind-ravaged summit ridge to our final drop-in point. It's all downhill from here.
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